In 10 Words or Less
White people problems
Loves: Rick Moody, Sigourney Weaver
Likes: Ang Lee, most of the cast
Dislikes: Katie Holmes' career path
Hates: ‘70s "culture"
The Story So Far...
Ang Lee's follow-up to his star-studded English-language breakthrough was an adaptation of Rick Moody's second novel, a story of unhappy people set in an affluent 1970s Connecticut suburb. Though embarrassingly ignored by the Academy Awards, it remains an underrated classic. It received a nearly feature-free DVD release in 2001, but eventually a Criterion DVD set arrived in 2008. DVDTalk has reviews of both releases.
1997 was a turning point in my film-watching life. While yes, it was the year that brought us dreck like Batman & Robin and Spawn, it was an incredible time to head to the theaters, with movies like Chasing Amy, The Game, Boogie Nights and Spice World. But one that stands out as much as any other is The Ice Storm, a movie that introduced the mainstream to a number of big future stars, as well as to the work of author Rick Moody, who would become a personal favorite. Though its brilliance was somewhat overlooked at the time, it's a film that remains as poignant as ever, thanks to a universal story told by a talented director working with an amazing cast.
Set in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1973, The Ice Storm focuses on two families, the Hoods and the Carvers, who are intertwined in many ways, but the biggest similarity is in their quiet misery. No one in either house is quite happy, whether it's the parents or the kids, with the children, including Paul (Tobey Maguire) and Wendy (Christina Ricci) of the Hoods and Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd) of the Carver household, being asked to grow up too soon, thanks largely to their parents acting like kids. Trapped in lives that are slowly revealing themselves to be personal prisons, they strain against their chains and strive for a sense of freedom, or at least hope.
It's a very WASP-y problem to have that you're unhappy with your lot in a world of affluence, but the characters here are struggling with expectations from the outisde and disappointment with the world they have been left, after a generation that reveled in tumult and freedom stuck them with the bill for such excitement, but with none of the joy. As Wendy chafes at the passivity of a world when President Richard Nixon seemingly gets away with his crimes and her mother Elena jealously mimics her youthful flittering, there's a definite seething resentment beneath it all, where the people are wondering why when everyone else gets theirs, why can't I? Thus sets off a chain of adultery and exploration that leaves everyone in a bad place, building toward a crushing climax that offers no happy ending. This is no feel-good movie.
While it's certainly a bummer, there are few films that are quite as beautiful while breaking your heart, from the gorgeous poster-quality frames throughout the film to the small, seemingly quiet yet impactful moments to the stunningly loving close-ups lavished on the actors, especially Ricci, whose tightrope walk between innocent and knowingly naughty is disturbingly subtle thanks to her soulful eyes and kewpie-doll face, which Lee takes full advantage of (even when he covers it with a Nixon mask, in one of the most disturbing hook-ups ever captured on film.) But all the good work on the look of the movie has to take a bit of a backseat to the score by Michael Danna, which ties everything up with a tense, nerve-tingling bow. Drawing on a number of influences, including Native American flute music, the music drives home all the bad feelings, creating and maintaining a sense of creeping dread that rarely if ever lets up, making the pay-off all the more powerful.
Behind the camera, Lee had a great team to work with as director, but it's the actors in front of his lens that truly make the film the incredible experience it is. In the roles of the broken adults, Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver and, to a slightly lesser degree, Jamey Sheridan, make each marital combatant a fully-realized human being, to the point where it's hard to fully blame any of them for what they've done to their families and to themselves. This is just their reality, especially Kline, who delivers a fantastically affecting performance as a man just trying to satisfy his wants and needs for human connection. As for the young actors portraying the misguided youth of New Canaan, this is one of those films where the casting director hit a home run, filling the movie with the kind of wall-to-wall talent you rarely see. Whether it's Maguire as the awkward older son trying to make the moves on the object of his affections, Wood as the dark soul infatuated with the even darker daughter Ricci gives life to, or even feature-film rookie Katie Holmes, whose "poor little rich girl" Libbets is the kind of scene stealer you find once in a blue moon.
The Ice Storm arrives on one Blu-Ray disc, in Criterion's standard clear keepcase, with an evocative two-sided cover and a 20-page booklet. The disc features the same moody design, offering the option to watch the film, navigate the timeline, select chapters and check out the extras. There are no audio options but English SDH subtitles are available.
The 1.85:1, 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer, approved by Lee delivers the film's wintery tone quite well, occasionally allowing some of the ‘70s more garish hues cut through, making for an impressive color presentation and solid black levels. There's a truly high level of fine detail, showing off the very textural world of the film, with all the dense fabric patterns and the characters' well-coiffed hair, especially when it comes to the many amazing close-ups. A heavy clean-up effort makes for a gorgeous image, but doesn't rob it of a cinematic feel or its period look. A touch of softness and some muted tones really sell the movie's era.
After the previous non-Criterion DVD gave us a 5.1 track with little to do, Criterion took guidance from Lee and gave us a faithful DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, that puts crystal clear dialogue center-stage, and keeps good separation from the gorgeous, haunting score and sparse, but highly-effective effects (like the increasingly present sound of ice.) It's not really dynamic or highly energetic, but it sounds great for this kind of film.
Note: All of the extras from the 2007 DVD release have been ported over here, with no new additions.
First up is a 2007 commentary by Schamus and Lee, which is a great deal of fun, as you'd expect from a pair of long-time pals and collaborators. With Schamus taking the lead, they spend a fair deal of time praising the actors (which is more than acceptable considering the quality of the performances) but there are lots of stories from the set, as well as discussion of Moody, the film's look and talk about the characters (including some changes from the book), not to mention talk of the film's unfortunate initial reception. It hits just the right balance of entertainment and information.
There's more from Lee and Schamus in "Lee and Schamus at the Museum of the Moving Image" (32:08). This on-stage discussion, hosted by MoMI's David Schwartz, is not focused on The Ice Storm, but rather the two men's collaborations up until Lust,Caution (with the odd exception of Ride with the Devil.) Like the commentary, it's a light, enjoyable conversation, spending a bit of time on each movie, building an excellent overview of their partnership. It's the kind of extra that makes Criterion's releases film-schools in a box.
"Weathering the Storm: The Making of The Ice Storm" (36:09) was made by Criterion in 2007, with interviews with many members of the cast. If there's anything you felt was missing in the commentary, you'll probably find it in this featurette, as the actors reminisce about the shoot, talking about how they came on board, changes that were made to their characters, how they prepped for the production and what it was like to work with Lee, and like with the commentary, they talk a bit about the film's lightly-regarded debut and the film's legacy. Perhaps it's my respect for these actors, but this is a perfect exploration of the craft, specifically in relation to this film.
Continuing the interview theme is "Rick Moody on Adapting The Ice Storm" (21:22), which lets the author discuss his participation with the movie and some of the more interesting elements of an adapted story, touching on the differences between the film and his novel (including the source music), the nature of adaptation (spoiler: he's not a big fan) and the feelings he experienced when it became "Ang Lee's The Ice Storm." It's a truly intriguing conversation, but Moody at times is staring right into the camera, which is a bit off-putting.
A trio of visual essays focus on "The Look of The Ice Storm" with audio from three of the crew members behind the film's beautiful imagery, DP Frederick Elmes (13:36), production designer Mark Friedberg (14:00) and costume designer Carol Oditz (8:24), played over material from the movie and the production effort to give a look behind the creation of the film's design. These offer plenty of valuable info regarding the making of the film, with Elmes talking about technical details of the shoot, Friedberg covering the challenge of creating the ice in the film and especially Oditz' entry, which discusses the elements of ‘70s fashion that had to be captured to represent the era faithfully, and how the clothes tied to the characters.
A quartet of deleted scenes, crafted by editor Tim Squyres from bits and pieces of material from the production, provide a chance to see some additional story detail that was excised during the editing process, for mostly good reason, as explained by Schamus in the optional audio commentary. There's a bit more of Elena's character here, which would have helped explain her a bit more, but it's not a dealbreaker.
Normally a trailer's inclusion on a home-video release is just a bit of ephemera that serves an archival purpose, but the theatrical trailer for The Ice Storm may be cinema's most epic bit of bait and switch ever pulled. From the music to the choice of clips to the obnoxious narrator, the movie this trailer is promoting couldn't be further from the actual film. A fascinating bit of marketing malpractice that serves as evidence of the mishandling by Fox that's referred to throughout the extras.
The booklet carries over the design scheme from the cover art and disc menu, capturing some of the film's most iconic frames, delivering "Baby, it's cold outside," an essay by Cahiers du cinema's Bill Krohn, along with details about the release. The well-written piece offers up some insightful observations on the film, Lee and the movie's place in recent film history. The only disappointment is the lack of focus on the film's wonderful score, which lends so much weight and meaning to the film.
The Bottom Line
There are plenty of reasons to watch The Ice Storm, whether you want to experience the heartache of two families' private strife, enjoy early performances by a gaggle of talented young actors or just soak in the beautiful visuals and sumptuous score. It's a brilliantly-made tale of suburban ennui and generational disillusion that is simply timeless. Though Criterion hasn't brought anything new to the table for this release, outside of an improved audio/video presentation, the extras remain very strong for fans of the film, making this a must-buy for anyone who doesn't already own the Criterion DVD, and a contender for an upgrade if a bump-up in aesthetic quality is important to you.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.